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C’mon C’mon offers an unusual view of parenting an exceptionally creative child

Audrey Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Audrey Kupferberg shows how she used to splice movie films.

It’s satisfying to see a movie about an atypical family, one that seems realistic enough to be your next-door neighbor, but singular enough to hold your attention for a couple hours. C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, and young British actor Woody Norman, tells such a story.

The plot involves Viv, a caring woman and mom of an eleven-year-old wunderkind, who feels obliged to take some time out from their daily lifestyle to tend to her ex-husband, a temperamental musician who is having yet another breakdown. She asks her brother, Johnny, a radio journalist who lives a solitary life, downplaying his emotions, to take young Jesse for a few days.

The simple situation of C’mon C’mon might play out like Leave It to Beaver in the hands of a less talented creative team. However, as written and directed by Mike Mills, and acted by a small group of elite actors, this film feels unique, artful.

Mills is more concerned with art than many others in the business. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1989, and has worked as a graphic designer and artist in addition to screen writer and director. His credits include a slew of music videos and ads. A few years ago, he was nominated for an Oscar for the wonderful film 20th Century Women with Annette Benning and Greta Gerwig. He did win other awards for that feature, as he did for the equally remarkable film, Beginners, with Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor.

In C’mon C’mon, Mills deals with the sensitive subjects of modern child rearing as well as the ability to express emotion, imagination, and truths. He made the film in black-and-white. I’m not convinced that was a good move. Was Mills trying to set a mood, or perhaps portray the city streets, beaches, and intimate indoor sequences with a coolness, a neutrality, balancing or perhaps tamping down the occasional heated emotion of the film’s contents? The overall look of the piece reminds me of Italian Realism from the 1940s; and that’s a compliment.

Woody Norman, the boy playing the ultra-bright, highly creative Jesse, is a standout performer. Without his abilities, this film would seem artificial instead of artful. In fact, the youngster was nominated for the prestigious BAFTA Award for his work in this movie. He has two upcoming projects in post-production, Cobweb and Last Voyage of the Demeter. I’ll be eager to see his future career unfold as he moves from adolescence to adulthood.

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny is the rock of the story. Even though his character teeters on a seesaw of emotions, his powerful presence, and particularly his scenes with the boy, are the fuel that make this film come to life. Gaby Hoffmann has her moments but cannot compete with the dominance of the two male leads. She isn’t given enough screentime.

Moms and dads may or may not agree with the liberal child rearing practices in this film. I’m not a parent; still, I will offer my opinion. It’s a bit too liberal for my taste. Then I say to myself, herein lies a good part of the drama. Good drama often plays out in ways that the audience questions or opposes. Audiences thrive on conflict and tension.

C’mon C’mon is available on Showtime, Showtime Anytime, Prime Video, and on disc.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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